FIND 2024
Alexander Zeldin:
FIND 2024 Artist in Focus
»You have to be ambitious in theatre, or why fucking bother«

by Joseph Pearson

27 March 2024

Alexander Zeldin, the Artist in Focus for the Schaubühne’s 2024 Festival of International New Drama (FIND), is a bright, young spark of British and European drama. I catch him on the phone as he exits a London rehearsal. As he chats, I hear too the background of city life: traffic, passing strangers’ voices, the bustle of their lives, and I think about how Zeldin’s theatre focuses on the intimate and individual.

I ask Zeldin what makes his theatre so recognisable and whether we can describe a style.

»I do think you can see one of my shows and know it’s mine«, he replies, »It’s something to do with the language or the way I work with silence, or how I try to see people with a certain empathy. But––I don’t actually think of it that way«.

I don’t want to burden Zeldin with the many labels the press applies to him, none of which are satisfactory: naturalism, documentary, docufiction… but the director is uncommonly patient with my desire to pin him down.

I mention how he is sometimes compared to Annie Ernaux or Édouard Louis, but he replies, »I love them, and I’m interested in the desire to reclaim reality we’ve seen in literary works over the last fifteen years. Writers today in theatre and literature sit in the shadow of memoir; obviously, that’s in the air. But that’s not all there is, and it’s not something new. George Eliot also wrote about her family, but you’d never call it docufiction. I come from a mix of influences. But I don’t have just one or a hierarchy for them in my head«.

I reply, »I think that one thing I notice in your plays is the focus on small things: a kettle boiling, a micro-action on stage. We all come to theatre with our library of associations, and I’m often reminded of Alice Munro––«

Zeldin replies, »Munro is one of the most important writers in my life, as much or more than the people you mentioned before. I want to feel life with an intensity that can escape us in reality. Theatre can help reclaim that reality from illusion. In this way, one of the responsibilities of theatre is to reclaim the dignity of life. And it’s my taste to be interested in minutiae. It’s just my taste. I am interested in watching, and how watching can unlock a story. From the small, you can reach something big; I think about [Jean] Racine’s preface to his play Bérénice: »toute l’invention consiste à faire quelque chose de rien«. [all creation consists of making something from nothing].

»What is that quelque chose that is created?« I ask.

»I think what I’m looking for in theatre is a tangible shape for inner feelings and landscapes. I feel you have to ask––as Peter Brook did a lot––why theatre? What is it for at this time in society?«

The »what for« question has an overtly political thrust in the trilogy that brought Zeldin to international attention, The Inequalities (2014-9). It tells stories of solidarity in the face of social inequity, in workaday spaces such as an emergency housing shelter, a meat-packing plant, or a community centre. Berlin audiences first got their taste of these plays when LOVE came to FIND 2021 (the film version will show at this year’s festival).

I remember the conversations I had around the Berlin premiere of LOVE. Theatregoers in the German capital recognised a political impulse reminiscent of Brecht, but Zeldin’s focus on interiority felt outside that tradition. The production raised questions, and Zeldin was invited to work with the Schaubühne’s ensemble for a 2022 German version of the trilogy’s Beyond Caring. Bookending the year’s festival will be the trilogy’s culmination––Faith, Hope and Charity, with its London cast––and a new work, The Confessions, based on his Australian mother’s memories of emancipation over eight decades.

I wonder about the trajectory from his trilogy to The Confessions. Zeldin has already told me of his desire »not to repeat what you’ve done, especially if it’s had some success«.

He replies, »After The Inequalities, I felt the desire for a different narrative. When I started doing LOVE, it was in a spirit of rebellion and transgression, a reaction to what I felt was not being given shape in the theatre. But the last thing I wanted was another play for The Inequalities. It’s important not to get stuck in one habit, and I’m glad that the audience at FIND will see Faith, Hope, and Charity, the culmination of that series, alongside something different, The Confessions«.

»How did you come to this story of working-class life, set in Australia, that begins with a school prom in 1958?« I ask.

»During Covid, when so many people were dying, I knew I wanted to tell a whole life on stage and that I wanted to break down what is fiction and what is not. I knew I was exhausted with make-believe, and I wanted to work with material that was real. For that reason, I interviewed my mother, someone I am very close to. It’s very exciting from a literary point of view as a collection of fragments, with a focus on how she is telling her story and how she remembers. I wanted to ask: can theatre measure up to the idea of honouring a life, someone getting ready to leave the world? It’s a big fucking question. But you have to be ambitious in theatre, or why fucking bother?«

Our conversation is coming to an end, but I want to know what it means to bring such a large body of his work to Berlin.

In the context of an international festival, he explains, »First, it’s a great honour to see so much of my work presented. And I am myself an outsider––father born in Haifa, mother in Australia, educated in French in England, so I am excited to be part of many different cultures. It’s a privilege to be between worlds. I’m also an idealistic person, which might be a counter-current to how theatre is done in most places. But I think there’s idealism in this festival, when people come from all over and ask themselves: what is the necessity of theatre?«

The Confessions

by Alexander Zeldin London
Director: Alexander Zeldin 

Premiered on 18 April 2024